Chairman of the Board

You might think that an artist who spent most of his life around blackboards would be weary of them. Not John O'Connor. The Idaho-born painter has been a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville for the past 30 years. Before joining the faculty there, he studied and taught at half a dozen colleges and universities in locations as diverse as California, Ohio, and Mexico over a ten-year period. The man has chalk in his blood, as well as on his painter's palette.

Of the 33 pieces in the solo exhibition "Real Illusions: John O'Connor's Blackboards & Their Origins," now at the Schmidt Center Gallery on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, more than half are paintings of blackboards, which have been O'Connor's artistic focus since the mid-'80s. Peculiar subject matter, to be sure, even for a man whose professional life is so intimately linked to academia.

But O'Connor doesn't just paint blackboards. He re-creates them, with an attention to detail that goes beyond meticulous to border on the fanatical. Working with acrylic on board and, in four pieces, on high-impact styrene (an industrial plastic), he manages to capture the look and feel of blackboards with remarkable realism. The dull black surfaces appear to have been written on and then erased again and again, leaving grainy streaks and pale smudges behind. Lingering in front of one of O'Connor's pieces, I could have sworn I caught a whiff of chalk dust. Real illusions, indeed.

O'Connor also compounds the illusions by embellishing his blackboards with a variety of realistically rendered objects. Faux decals of such items as an apple, a flamingo, and a flower turn up in several of the works, and in others small pieces of paper appear to have been taped onto the chalkboard. Some of these touches are wry visual puns, but they mainly serve to strengthen the overwhelming impression that we're gazing at real, three-dimensional blackboards instead of representations of them.

A little of this sort of trompe l'oeil realism goes a long way, however, and if O'Connor's work were nothing more, it could be easily dismissed as a clever novelty, an amusing but ultimately unsatisfying trick. The artist is toying with the interplay of perception and illusion and reality, all right, but he's also up to something else.

In a general sense, the repeated markings and erasures on the blackboards can be seen as a commentary on the accumulation of history or personality. Identity is the result of layers and layers that have been applied and then only partially removed. The past can never be completely erased, O'Connor seems to be saying. It may be overlaid again and again until it's blurred or obscured, but residual traces will inevitably remain.

Tellingly these layers of markings are rarely fully legible. A couple of words may come into focus here, a phrase there, but language in these paintings exists mainly in fragments, as bits and pieces of thought that linger even as the eraser attempts to consign them to the past, to be supplanted by newer markings. (There's also a built-in joke here: Who better to generate barely decipherable scribblings on a chalkboard than a university professor?)

Other elements similarly reappear in image after image. O'Connor often includes such information as the name of the work, its date, and, in lieu of an artist's signature, his own name, painted along one edge of the picture to look as though they've been stenciled onto the blackboard. Mathematical or scientific diagrams recur, although they too are typically distorted or incomplete, so that it's almost impossible to determine their significance except in a compositional sense. Asian-style ideograms also appear in a few pieces.

I don't mean to imply that O'Connor's blackboard paintings are in any sense interchangeable. Quickly surveying them from the center of the gallery, where they stretch across several walls and a couple of freestanding panels, it's easy to get that impression. At a glance there's an almost eerie sameness to the paintings, due in part to the dominant black, white, and gray color scheme, accented by other colors only in the small decals and swatches of paper.

But focus your attention on one piece at a time, and its distinguishing characteristics will emerge. Mozart (1989), for instance, incorporates musical notes and symbols, along with the German words for "Some Musical Fun" (the title of a Mozart piece). Two "notes" posted on opposite sides of the painting form a pair of witty brackets. "Try to imagine the world without Mozart," reads the one on the left. Its counterpart on the right alters the line to read, "Try to imagine the world without most art."

In Erasing History (1989) O'Connor combines Chinese ideograms with a pair of ghostly outlines of the face of Chairman Mao to point up an irony: He who sought to erase his country's culture and history is himself fading, gradually receding into oblivion. With Monarchs (1992) the artist even points out the obviousness of the joke by juxtaposing butterflies not only with a crowned head but also with an anvil, undercutting his own heavy-handedness by calling attention to it.

The most ambitious layers of imagery are found in the most recent piece in the show, the commanding AMERICA, which occupies its own freestanding panel just inside the gallery's front doors. (Like the show's other three horizontal blackboards, it's a sprawling 48-by-96-inch piece; the rest, all verticals, are 40 by 30 inches.) Here the layers fade in and out of focus, so that what at first looks like a blackboard blanketed with random stenciled letters yields a composition that includes the Statue of Liberty and a large eagle insignia, as well as colored stencilings of a boat, a gunman, and a bridge. Also visible is a color "photograph" of part of the Manhattan skyline, including the World Trade Center towers and a portion of the Empire State Building.

It's an imposing piece but also an oddly anticlimactic one. Its rich inventory of images, once tallied, seems less a summation of the United States than a glimpse of New York City, and only a part of the city at that. Does O'Connor really mean to suggest that Manhattan is all there is to America, or is he offering up an ironic assessment? Hard to tell.

AMERICA is meant to signal the end of the exhibition, which is organized chronologically. It's positioned so close to the early pieces, from the late '60s, however, that you could almost mistake it for a starting point rather than a finishing one. What sets it apart is its technical mastery.

The dozen or so nonblackboard paintings, drawings, and mixed-media pieces that make up the "& Their Origins" part of the show aren't exactly juvenilia, but they seem only marginally connected to the complex aesthetic O'Connor began to explore with the blackboards. Object Dart, a 1977 ink-on-paper drawing of a dart, is a witty if rather obvious homage to Magritte, and there are touches in the 1982 watercolor Berkeley Botanical Garden 1965 -- a ring stain from a coffee cup, the illusion of a sheet of paper ripped from a spiral binder -- that hint at the trompe l'oeil effects O'Connor plays with later.

But aside from the crisp simplicity of the exhibition's earliest piece, a spare 1968 abstract called Blue Fragment, painted in acrylic on paper, there's nothing in these older works with the depth and resonance of the artist's more recent efforts. Next to them most of their predecessors seem like so much padding. Clearly, John O'Connor has found his milieu with these strangely haunting blackboard paintings.

"Real Illusions: John O'Connor's Blackboards & Their Origins" is on display through May 23 at the Schmidt Center Gallery, Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton, 561-297-2966.

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Michael Mills